05/25/2005 11:00PM

Meet opens with smoother surface, more offtrack outlets

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The temperatures are heading north and so is the racing. The annual pilgrimage of Arizona horsemen and horseplayers happens on Saturday, as the action moves from the recently concluded Turf Paradise meet to the cooler high-mountain area (elevation about 5,000 feet) of Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley.

The facility is opening for its fifth season, having been inaugurated in 2001. Yavapai, a mile oval, is a state-of-the-art facility that supplanted old Prescott Downs as the main summer stop for racing in Arizona.

Yavapai Downs, located about 1 1/2 hours north of Phoenix, will commence a 56-day meet that runs through Sept. 6. The track will be open seven days a week for simulcasting.

General manager Jim Grundy, who supervised the changeover from Prescott Downs to Yavapai, now has a few seasons under his belt. He thinks Yavapai will have a stronger meet this year than last year, when, he said, handle rose about 8 percent.

Grundy noted several factors to justify his optimism.

"First, it helps us that Turf Paradise had such a successful meet," he said. "We're hoping to maintain that type of momentum. We also figure to benefit from more OTB openings. We work with Turf on that and they had a couple new sites open toward the end of their meet. That gets us to 50 sites in the state.

"The other thing that helps us is our schedule. By racing Saturday through Tuesday we offer programs nationally when many tracks are dark. Our Monday and Tuesday cards get us simulcast into Las Vegas and New York, which helps out enormously."

Grundy also cited improvement to the racing surface. "We think we had some small fields last year because we had an issue with some rocks getting kicked up," he said. "But this year we bought a machine that screens out rocks and other things from the track, and then we added much more material. This should ensure not only a fair race track but a safe one so we can have our horses running through the entire meet."

The opening-day program is highlighted by the $20,000 Gerry Howard Inaugural Handicap. The six-furlong race for 3-year-olds and upward lured a field of eight, headed by 123-pound highweight Komax. Trained by Kevin Eikleberry, Komax comes off a strong second in the Grand Canyon Handicap at Turf Paradise on April 30. The horse he chased that day, King Justin, came back to win again. The race marked Komax's first race in more than 10 months, so he figures fitter and tougher for this.

No Toro and Snowbound Writer, both weighted at 122 pounds, loom the main adversaries. No Toro comes off a second in an optional claimer at Turf Paradise on May 8, while Snowbound Writer finished second then fifth in a pair of Turf Paradise stakes over the past 1 1/2 months.

At a glance: Yavapai Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 56 racing days, May 28 through Sept. 6; Saturday through Tuesday, full-card simulcasting 7 days a week.

POST TIME: 1 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: $2.50 Saturday, Sunday; free Monday, Tuesday.

HIGHLIGHTS: $20,000 Mile-Hi Handicap, Aug. 28; $20,000 Yavapai Downs Thoroughbred Derby, Aug. 20.

SEATING: Apron (outdoors), free; Clubhouse table, $10; box, $18.

PARKING: Free; RV space $10/night.

LOCATION: Highway 89A, northeast of Prescott Valley, a few miles West of I-17, about an hour and a half north of Phoenix.

PHONE: (928) 775-8000

INTERNET: www.yavapaidownsatpv.com